Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Film Review | The Conspirator

Northern Exposure

by Thomas Delapa

It was a Southerner, William Faulkner, who said, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.”

And so too with the Civil War, 150 years hence. With modern America’s polarizing battles on states’ rights about everything from health care to immigration law, there may be more disunion in these United States than at any time since the Vietnam War.

Set on the eve of Reconstruction, The Conspirator sets out to reconstruct the little-known, but telling, events that followed in the wake of Lincoln’s fateful assassination. Any smart 5th grader can tell you that John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln, but how many of us know that he was only one member of a larger conspiracy that aimed to send most of Lincoln’s cabinet to kingdom come?

At the very least, Robert Redford’s weighty courtroom drama is downright rebellious in its thoughtful and reasoned pace, lined up against the scattershot caliber of today’s Hollywood. In this his best film since Quiz Show, Redford marshals winning performances from his cast, led by Robin Wright and Atonement’s James McAvoy.

One doesn’t need to be Shelby Foote to feel the 21st century reverberations in the way Redford and his screenwriters shape the story of Mary Surratt (Wright), the one woman put on trial for the conspiracy. Though she was a citizen—if a Southern sympathizer—the government ordered that she be tried in a military tribunal, not a civilian court. So although the evidence was patently circumstantial, her defense was next to impossible. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) was out for swift revenge—and to make sure those damn, cotton-pickin’ Rebs learned their lesson.

Redford takes up Surratt’s cause, much in the same wary way that her young, inexperienced Northern lawyer, Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) does. Reluctantly taking her case, Aiken alienates his friends and his betrothed (Alexis Bledel) in his fight to save Surratt from the gallows. Like Lee at Gettysburg, Aiken faces major odds, especially with Stanton deviously tipping the scales behind the scenes.

So while you’re witnessing the diligent acting from McAvoy and company, Redford’s pace will allow you time to weigh the strong evidence of irony afoot. For a trial about an insidious conspiracy, Stanton—who could be a bearded Donald Rumsfeld—is busy rigging his own conspiracy. We can also strenuously object at the way Surratt’s constitutional rights are trampled upon, this in the days following a horrific war expressly meant to save the republic and its Constitution.

While didactic, and a mite dry, The Conspirator makes its plea for truth and fairness, set off against dim, stuffy interiors that blot out the few rays of truth. The (im)moral of the story is that, in times of war, politics trump justice. But Redford serves to remind us as individuals—whether blue, red or gray—of the cowardly and dishonest choices we make when we march in lockstep to the drumbeat of expedience.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

No Country for Old Tires: "Rubber" Review

Rubber (Review)

Quentin Dupieux’s horror satire centers on a killer tire

By Steven Rosen

Cincinnati CityBeat

April 20, 2011

. . . . . . .

It’s tempting to call Rubber an intimate glimpse into the tire condition. But that might seem excessively flippant.

True, it’s hard not to describe this new independent film about a killer tire, which can be seen first-run in Cincinnati on Time Warner Cable’s video-on-demand platform, without allowing for some humor. It’s just such a weird premise.

Yet this indie production has some serious issues on its mind about the absurdity of the human condition and the desensitizing (and dehumanizing) of American filmgoers to mindless, sadistic violence. Or at least I think it does. Maybe it is just a big goof — a film about a killer tire that uses telekinesis to blow up people’s heads.

It’s part Camus, part Goodyear ad and part David Cronenberg (especially Scanners). It also, in its way, is out to satirize and one-up those endlessly banal children’s animated movies that relentlessly anthropomorphize every animal known to humankind.

Made by French director Quentin Dupieux (who also wrote the story and shot and edited the film, plus co-wrote the vaguely Morricone-esque score under the alias “Mr. Oizo”), it is in English and set in the sun-baked California desert. That’s where that misunderstood 1970 masterpiece about the alienation of American youth, Michelangelo Antonioni’s cryptically deadpan Zabriskie Point, also was shot.

Rubber begins as a car approaches a seemingly random destination in the desert, its driver carefully turning the wheels to slowly knock over a series of chairs placed in the roadway. A police lieutenant (Stephen Spinella) gets out of the car, as a nervous young man (Jack Plotnick) stands somewhere nearby, and launches into the strangest existential monologue ever uttered by a movie cop.

Why is the alien in Spielberg’s E.T. brown? “No reason,” he explains.” Why don’t the characters in Texas Chainsaw Massacre ever go to the bathroom? “No reason.” Why, in Oliver Stone’s JFK, does a president get shot by a complete stranger? “No reason.” And in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, why does a gifted pianist have to live like a bum? You guessed it: “No reason.”

It’s pretty clear the lieutenant is talking about life itself, not just the movies — The Pianist is about the Holocaust, after all. But as he joins his officer in the car and drives off, it’s not evident the message about the human condition has registered with the group of people he’s been addressing.

They are mismatched, cranky “moviegoers,” who have been led to the desert likes lambs to slaughter to watch from a safe distance as Rubber unfolds in (seemingly) real time before their eyes. And to complain whenever the action slows down — they are hungry, literally, for graphic violence and, maybe, some sex. They are the subjects of the filmmaker’s disdain — fools who, in the face of the unfairness of existence, show not empathy but bloodlust. A bloodlust, by the way, that Hollywood feeds.

Among them is a crusty older wheelchair-bound gent (Wings Hauser) who seems wiser than the rest. For much of what follows, Dupieux cuts between the “action” and this Greek chorus’ commentary on the action … at least until their hunger gets the best of them.

As the plot gets underway, the camera turns to an undistinguished patch of dirt, where an abandoned tire rests. It slowly, twitchingly, magically comes to life and begins jauntily rolling down the road — killing an animal or two in its way. It seems attracted to a young, dark-haired French woman (Roxane Mesquida) driving through the desert, even using its powers to stall out her car. But a passing motorist interferes — and later pays for it.

The tire moves on to a dilapidated motel, where the French woman is staying and where it shows a Psycho-like fondness for showers. The police lieutenant reemerges to both conduct a murder investigation and break the fourth wall by discussing the film-in-progress with his confused deputies. They think this is a serious hunt for a maniacal tire, not a movie.

The tire, which is listed as “Robert” in the credits, has its own cathartic moment. As it rolls along, it comes across a field where workers are burning others like it. This is no country for old tires, it realizes. After it watches the bonfire, its attitude toward the human race seems to harden. Its murders up to that point have been semi-provoked. Afterwards, the provocation is inherent in the human species itself.

It’s hard for Dupieux to always maintain the delicate balance of tire-black humor and faithfulness to narrative, to not get so navel-gazingly “meta” about his intentions that Rubber becomes an exercise in film theory first and a movie second. Toward the end, there are shaky, superficially developed moments. Yet there is a funny late-movie scene — worthy of Super Troopers — where the police and the French woman try to coax the tire out of a house by using a bomb-laden mannequin.

It’s useful to compare this with American exploitation horror films that try to be knowingly clever while laying on the violence — the Scream series, including the new 4, for instance. Or those films that just plain old revel in torture and sadism, like the sickening Saw or movies by another director whose first name is Quentin.

I don’t want to pretend Rubber isn’t violent, but Dupieux cues the blow-up scenes with sound and visual effects and minimizes our exposure to the actual carnage. Surprising as it sounds, given the film’s premise and storyline, he’s a humanist.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Film Review | Hanna

Run Hanna Run

by Thomas Delapa

Once upon a time in an icy northern land, there was a little girl named Hanna, endowed with magical superhuman powers. Though she loved her father, Hanna couldn’t wait to grow up ... and start kicking ass.

A fairly appalling modern fairy tale, Hanna begins with the Brothers Grimm and ends in a grim, grungy post-humanism. Take a mishmash of Run Lola Run, The Terminator and Spy Kids, and upload with fashionable Y2K brutality, and—hocus-pocus—you’ll have director Joe Wright’s bastard Frankenstein creation.

Helen Reddy has nothing on Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), an ethereal 16-year-old whose wide-eyed robotic demeanor hides a hair-trigger urge to kill. When we first find her in the Finland tundra, she’s slaying a deer with bow and arrow. Yes, kimo sabe, her dad (Eric Bana) has trained her well. Her mission, which she has no trouble accepting, is to track down and knock off Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), a nasty CIA operative with a Southern drawl and a fetish for chic shoes.

Even if Wiegler is a wicked witch of the West, this is no Cinderella story. But it’s not a stretch to see Hanna as a blond Red Riding Hood, kicking and shooting her away through Europe and Morocco, while eluding a pack of German nihilists. This all might have been fun had Wright (Atonement) and his screenwriters dodged a terminally hip violence that recycles the pulpy premise into flashy trash.

You can imagine Hanna as the virginal Aryan flip-side to the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Himmler himself couldn’t dream up a more uber-perfect Hitler youth than Ronan’s Hanna, whose fanatical devotion to her father(land) results in a trail of broken limbs and dead bodies. When she’s not busting heads, Hanna tags along with a cheeky Australian girl (Jessica Barden) and her family.

As wispy as Hanna’s tousled hair, Wright’s back story comes in fits and starts, and only serves to prime the pump in the high-octane, techno-fueled action. Despite a handful of fanciful locations—like an outdoor Berlin museum of decrepit dinosaurs—Wright’s sense of action doesn’t evolve much beyond his prehistoric slo-mo fight scenes.

In an archly stylized movie that coldly combines the unreal with the ludicrous, Wright does what heretofore seemed an impossible mission: He coaxes a crummy performance out of Blanchett, one of the screen’s best actresses. The only thing that stands out in Blanchett’s flat, walk-on villainy is her nice set of legs.


Monday, April 11, 2011

Sidney Lumet's Last Film Was an Excellent One

Film: Review: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead:

Sidney Lumet strikes again with a taut cautionary tale

By Steven Rosen

(From Cincinnati CityBeat, 2007) . . . . . . .

Eighty-three-year-old director Sidney Lumet is a genuine American Master -- his career includes classic live television dramas of the 1950s as well as such outstanding, naturalistic cinematic investigations of ethical conduct under duress as 1957's 12 Angry Men, 1964's The Pawnbroker, 1973's Serpico and 1981's Prince of the City.

Yet his work of the past 10 years has been a minor footnote to his achievements -- Sharon Stone's remake of Gloria, Night Falls on Manhattan, Find Me Guilty. When he received a 2005 Honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, it seemed a given that Lumet's best work was behind him.

So much for assumptions. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is among his best work -- a ferociously unsentimental look at how easily life can become terrible, especially when one puts ambition ahead of ethical conduct and morality. Tightly, smartly written by playwright Kelly Masterson and propelled by an ominously melancholy Carter Burwell score, it is a cautionary tale with the tough, haunting power of Greek tragedy and the grittiness of film noir.

It's also cleverly constructed, with a bitterly just and black-pitched ending, and filled with fine acting. It's about two New York adult brothers named Hanson -- Philip Seymour Hoffman's Andy and Ethan Hawke's Hank -- who plan a robbery of their parents' Westchester County jewelry store that turns unexpectedly violent.

How it went wrong has something to do with Andy's hubris in believing it wouldn't -- he figured it'd unfold safely and insurance would cover the loss. And it has something to do with Hank being the kind of weak-brother screw-up who can't do anything right. Instead of committing the crime on his own, for instance, Hank hires an irritable Jersey hothead named Bobby (Brian O'Byrne) to do the dirty work.

Lumet's structure is fragmented so the truths about how and why the robbery failed play out through an abruptly shifting yet uncomplicated flashback structure. It's Rashomon-like in that it replays crucial events from different viewpoints.

Lumet, old man though he might be, is not timid about sexuality and nudity. The film opens with a married couple -- Hoffman and Marisa Tomei as his wife Gina -- engaged in some provocatively graphic sex while on vacation in Brazil. As it emerges from their subsequent post-coital discussion, they would like to renew themselves and start over, maybe even move to Brazil. Maybe that's where the idea of the robbery comes from; maybe the sex makes Andy want to live dangerously and not get old and boring.

Hoffman's Andy, a slick and controlling corporate payroll officer, is slyness spilling over into sliminess. Seemingly middle-class but easily corruptible, he can manipulate his insecure younger brother Hank in all ways but one -- Hank is having a secret affair with Gina. Hoffman is terrific here, his few big outbursts never showy, and the too-often too-passive Hawke finds his inner soul as a desperately scared, frightened man who might be pathetic but whose heart hasn't yet turned to stone.

The brothers' father Charles is, too, a towering, controlling figure who views Hank as a "baby," but in a protective way. Albert Finney plays him like a battlefield general who is mortally wounded but not ready to die despite the pain. His confusion and anger about what happened at the robbery is simultaneously brave and pathetic. And his sorrow makes him unpredictable. The dynamic between Finney and Hoffman recalls James Coburn and Nick Nolte in Affliction.

Tomei, who plays quite a few scenes semi-nude, might just be too beautiful to be convincing when her Gina worries that beefy Andy doesn't find her attractive anymore. But while her character's low self-esteem is a stretch given the actress' physical attributes, Tomei's willingness to buy into it and give her all is impressive.

The title, explained in the opening credits, comes from an old saying: "May you be in heaven for half an hour before the devil knows you're dead." It's more curse than benediction. To underscore that, a memorable character played by Leonard Cimino -- a crooked, wizened diamond dealer -- adds this observation to Charles: "The world is an evil place. Some of us make money off it, others are destroyed by it."

Words to remember from a film that will also be remembered.

Grade: A

(photo of Ethan Hawke, left, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Remembering a Truly "Beautiful" Documentary

By Steven Rosen

(From The Denver Post, 1997.)

Grim, difficult "Sick' shows why art needn't be pretty-

When people say art is beautiful, they don't just mean it's pretty in superficial and cliched ways.

They mean the artist takes great risks to tell the truth as he sees it, for the benefit of those of us who either can't or are too afraid.

Bob Flanagan, who died in 1996 at age 43, was such an artist. And the truth as he saw it was very upsetting. He had cystic fibrosis, a painful congenital disease that makes breathing difficult. Victims often die in their 20s. Three of his parents'f ive children had it.

Because he felt the need to confront that pain and because he also eroticized it, Flanagan became a ""supermasochist.'' This was his perverse version of Outward Bound. His devoted lover, photographer-artist Sheree Rose, administered the sexual torture yet also provided empathy and support when the illness' effects seemed too much for him to accept. By 1991, he used an oxygen tank to breathe.

In a way, they're a modern-day Romeo and Juliet - except that the extraordinarily unflinching documentary about them, ""Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist,'' isn't about a man choosing to die. It's about how Flanagan, with Rose's support, fought the inevitable with every painful cough and breath. Theirs is a powerful if very unconventional love story.

Flanagan wrote about and video-recorded their sadomasochistic acts, creating art exhibits that mixed glimpses of this intimate behavior with accounts of his illness. He and Rose also collaborated on performance-art pieces, some of which are in this film.

In one, ""Autopsy,'' he pretends to be dead while she examines the scars of their love life. "Bob always accused me of being too nice,'' Rose says, as he groans in the background.

This sounds excruciatingly grim and hard to watch, and at times it is. But Flanagan also had a self-deprecating sense ofhumor about his life and work. Until he is hospitalized, he never seems defeated. He is dedicated to experiencing life to its fullest, which for him is the same as experiencing pain to its fullest. Maybe his is an idiosyncratic rather than universal message; maybe it isn't.

Director Kirby Dick's "Sick,'' begun in 1993 and made with the co-operation of Flanagan and Rose, is certainly the best documentary about a tortured artist since 1994's "Crumb.'' And it is more - a "Howl'' for the 1990s.

Dick (and Flanagan) remind us of an inherent cruelty of life and encourage us to feel its unfairness in our bloodstream -good people suffer unfairly. This movie won the Special Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

There are several touching scenes, but also several that force you to grimace. Without the latter, the movie would seem eviscerated. It'd be about a masochist without letting us see what that really means. But one notorious scene goes too far and becomes cruel to the audience - Flanagan nails his penis to a board and lets the blood spurt.

This is how Flanagan "fights back,'' in the words of his confused but understanding father. But he does it in more humane ways, too. He sings funny songs at a meeting of a sadomasochistic club and reads a riveting poem about his choices in life, "Why.''

"Sick's'' most heart-wrenching scene involves old footage of the young Flanagan visiting the Steve Allen show in 1962. He's just a kid, like any other. The talk-show host is impressed. "You're a fine-looking young fellow,'' Allen tells Flanagan.

By then, of course, Flanagan knew what he was facing. You imagine his sadness about life, at such a young age. For 22 years, from 1973 until soon before his death, Flanagan served as a counselor at a cystic-fibrosis camp. There is footage of him singing his bitterly funny compositions while breathing from his oxygen tank.

Among other things, "Sick'' is a compelling portrait of a world where people, many of them quite young, have no illusions about their fate. He was a role model for some of them. In a fascinating scene,a 17-year-old girl suffering from cystic fibrosis and her mother visit Flanagan and Rose during a trip arranged by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To her, Flanagan is a beacon of courage and truth.

"You always think of them being sick and feeble,'' she says of fellow disease victims. You won't think of Flanagan as ""feeble'' after seeing "Sick,'' even though you may not find him such an appetizing role model. But whatever you think after seeing "Sick,'' take a moment just to feel the evening air and not feel frightened about breathing.

And then thank Flanagan's art - and this difficult movie - for not letting you take that for granted.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Film Review | Win Win


by Thomas Delapa

Even in the best of all possible indie worlds, high-school wrestling, New Jersey and Paul Giamatti probably wouldn’t add up to a box-office sleeper hold.

But give writer/director Tom McCarthy a few points for trying. If you don’t nod off during Win Win, it’s because Giamatti stays on top in one of his trademark middle-class loser roles.

Three states and two centuries away from his Emmy-winning John Adams, Giamatti’s Mike Flaherty is a foundering father and struggling small-town lawyer. His business is nearly broke—as is his office toilet. Even the local wrestling team he coaches regularly throws in the towel.

Were it not for Giamatti, I have a hunch that McCarthy’s sputtering vehicle would have never left the off-Hollywood garage. At the risk of redundancy, Win Win’s small victories are no match for the double troubles in both script and supporting cast.

Grappling with debts and anxiety attacks, Flaherty cooks up a crooked way out. He convinces a judge to grant him legal guardianship of Leo (Burt Young), a doddering client with money to spare. Against Leo’s wishes, Mike unscrupulously moves him from his home to a care facility, pocketing $1500 a month for his troubles.

A serious breach of ethics? You bet. But McCarthy (The Visitor) wiggles his own way out of the drama, gumming up the works with cheap, saccharine laughs that are only a few grades above Jersey Shore. Washing up among the non-supporting roles is the tag team of Terry (Bobby Cannavale), a lowbrow bachelor, and Mike’s law partner (Jeffrey Tambor), who, as Mike’s assistant coaches, belong on the bench. Only Amy Ryan, as Mike’s feisty, Bon Jovi-loving wife, plays with Giamatti on his level.

The wild card in the deal is Kyle (Alex Shaffer), a mopey, mop-haired teen runaway who arrives in town to announce that he’s Leo’s grandson. (As Mike is fond of saying, “It’s complicated.”) But this potential disaster for Mike flips right around when he discovers that the kid is some kind of all-star wrestler.

From a drab, offbeat drama about today’s squeezed middle class, Win Win takes a fall when McCarthy drags a Bad New Bears subplot out of hibernation, switching to Kyle’s unspectacular exploits that turn his adopted team into a contender. With few exceptions—1950’s Night and the City the great one—as a dynamic movie subject, wrestling ranks somewhere with synchronized swimming. While Giamatti is constantly throwing him a lifeline, the opaque, poker-faced young Shaffer barely keeps his head above water.

If two wrongs don’t make a right, at best Win Win winds down as a draw.